This is a conversation I like to think happened at Asobo Studios a few years ago.
Game Designer - You know what gamers want?
Studio Head - I like to think I do, but please tell me what you think gamers want?
Game Designer - Escort missions! Not only do they want escort missions, they really want stealth-based escort missions.
Studio Head – You know I think you’re right. We should make a game that is essentially one long escort mission! But we must also make it soul-crushingly depressing, dour, and dripping with filth, dread and disease!
Game Designer – In that case how about we set it in one of our nation’s most horrific historical periods, the 100 Years War in the midst of the outbreak of the Black Death and violent religious persecution by the Catholic Church! It will be hours of fun?
Studio Head - Yes, this is exactly what gamers want and they’ll love it!
And thus was born A Plague Tale: Innocence. A game I didn’t know I wanted and yeah, I actually do kind of love it.
Amicia de Rune is the 15-year-old highborn daughter of Lord Robert and Lady Beatrice de Rune, members of the French aristocracy who have fallen foul of The Inquisition. Amid a violent raid, Amicia and her very ill younger brother Hugo escape their estate and journey into the unknown, needing to avoid capture by agents of The Inquisition and an ever-growing threat of swarms of rats believed to be carrying Death itself in the form of the Black Plaque.
A Plague Tale: Innocence is a third-person action adventure game with a very heavy focus on stealth, enemy avoidance, and puzzle solving. Amicia must guide and protect her younger brother while navigating the various threats in the world in an attempt to find sanctuary for them both. Yes, this game is basically one long escort mission, but the genius here is that Asobo Studio has managed to remove the “escort” part and the usual frustrations from the experience while still allowing both Amicia and Hugo to retain their own agency within the game world and story.
For the most part, you directly control Amicia and Hugo in unison, as Amicia holds Hugo’s hand and guides him through the various locales in the game. You move the pair as a unit and thus avoid many of the pitfalls of every escort mission that has ever been created. At no point are you waiting on, or following Hugo, and he is unable to get himself into trouble by wandering off (unless it’s for a story beat or set piece). At certain points, it may become necessary to separate, either to solve an environmental puzzle, distract and an enemy, or allow the much smaller Hugo to squeeze through to otherwise inaccessible areas to unlock doors or retrieve an object that will enable Amicia to move forward. The controls are elegant in their simplicity and executed almost flawlessly. This is one area that could have ruined the whole experience, but instead is one of the strengths of the game.
Early on, the main foes Amicia and Hugo will face are human. Be they The Inquisition who are pursuing the pair, or the general populace who driven either by fear or fervour are just as dangerous and hostile to the de Rune children. In almost every instance avoidance is the best course of action, but when confrontation is unavoidable, Amicia will prove to be far less helpless than she looks. Armed with an upgradeable sling, she can kill when she needs to protect herself and her brother. This, however, is no shooter, and taking a life is traumatic for Amicia, who is brilliantly portrayed by newcomer Charlotte McBurney. In fact, the performances by both of the leads here are exceptional and portray their fear, desperation, as well as hope and love for each other expertly throughout.
This is a very mature title and the treatment of death and violence is handled very differently from most games. Acts of violence are brutal, visceral and often shocking even to this jaded “desensitised” gamer. Death is often emotionally devastating and not just for the characters in the game. It is so authentically portrayed that I felt the on-screen trauma on a deeply emotional level multiple times throughout my journey with Amicia and Hugo. This is not the usual hokey, heartstrings pulling obviously manipulative bullshit we’ve endured so many times before. Life here feels desperate, precarious, and precious, and death pervasive, predatory, and cruel. More importantly though, the bond of love between the two leads feels authentic as it grows deeper and more solid as they learn to trust and lean on each other for survival.
Death you see is an ever-present threat, and that threat is physically embodied by one of the most impressive and chilling aspects of the game. The rats. I am not someone who often feels squeamish, but this game gave me the heebie-jeebies, the willies, and the ooglies on multiple occasions and its all down to how Asobo presents the ever-growing swarms of rats. The writhing mass of dark bodies is not only an impressive technical achievement, the effect they had on me as the player was at times physically uncomfortable as I tried to shake off an itch between my shoulder blades, or suppress a shudder as a swarm undulated and writhed on screen. They possess an almost supernatural aura of pervasive menace and purpose that does not diminish through out the entire game.
Initially, the rats represent a certain and horrifying death, but soon Amicia thanks to some alchemical unguents learns to manipulate the swarms to a certain degree which opens up more tactical options when it comes how she addresses the threats from her two-legged enemies. The interplay between avoidance, distraction, light and dark, as well as alchemic manipulation of the rat swarms all coalesce into a robust stealth toolset by the midgame that is an absolute joy to experiment with. For the most part, the game is linear, and there is almost always a “right” way to get past a roadblock, but that seldom takes away from the enjoyment of the game. The interplay between Amicia and the swarms is satisfying and yet always somewhat unnerving. They are never not a threat to her, which is why it is so empowering and enjoyable to interact with them. The rats are a gameplay revelation and something wholly unique in my gaming experience. While I was never really not at least repulsed by their on-screen presence I was always grateful they were there.
There are a few issues to be found in the game, but they are so intermittent they do not deserve more than a footnote. Occasional performance issues from both the game engine and the odd voice actor can do very little to detract from what is a deeply satisfying experience.